Lang Lang Plays Hero Liszt With Philly Orchestra

Superstar pianist Lang Lang is celebrating what would’ve been the 200th birthday of his hero Franz Liszt by playing a concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra that will be broadcast live in movie theaters around the world. But first, he’s getting a cheesesteak.

Photo: AP Photo
In his dressing room before he rehearses with chief conductor Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“This is a homecoming for me,” he told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday before his rehearsal with the orchestra. He first came to Philadelphia in 1997 as a 15-year-old prodigy from provincial China to attend the exclusive Curtis Institute of Music, a few blocks from where he will take the stage at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

Two years later, while still a student going with friends to South Street for his cheesesteak fix, he already was beginning to play sold-out concert halls.

Now 29 and a worldwide sensation, Lang Lang is joining the orchestra and its chief conductor, Charles Dutoit, for three performances of Liszt’s famed Piano Concerto No. 1 along with other selections. Saturday’s performance will be simulcast in movie theaters in Europe and the U.S. (except for the West Coast, where it will be on tape delay) and it will be shown in theaters again on Monday.

Liszt “was the biggest rock star during that time and he inspired so many people … to listen to the amazing art he created on the piano. Truly my piano hero,” Lang Lang said. “And to do it with Philadelphia Orchestra I think is a great privilege.”

His new CD, aptly titled Liszt, My Piano Hero, is a tribute to the 19th-century composer whose Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 was Lang Lang’s first encounter with classical music as a 2-year-old watching a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon on television.

“At that time I have no idea about what is classical music. I only know Tom,” he said with a laugh. “So in a way to see such a good pianist – Tom – playing on the piano is really inspiring, and I started playing on my little piano as well.”

Liszt inspires him in part because he “made piano into a much bigger instrument in a way that piano sounds like an orchestra, or two orchestras, under his arrangement and his technique.”

“In a way he made piano music and performance art,” Lang Lang said. “He reunited those two elements into one creativity, which is to play music in a most emotional way.”

Lang Lang (pronounced “long long”) gets occasional criticism from more conservative classical listeners for his dramatic playing style but to younger fans in his native China and beyond, however, he is idolized like a pop star. His fame and fortune are prompting many parents to start their children in piano lessons, a phenomenon sometimes called the “Lang Lang effect.”

Photo: AP Photo
Nobel Peace Prize Concert, Oslo Spektrum, Oslo, Norway

He sees that as both an honor and a responsibility.

“We also need to take time also to think about developing programs for kids to really enjoy playing, not feeling it’s only hard work which is most often the case,” he said. “Kids like music but they hate practice.”